Lack of approved contractors hamper local programs that help with lead removal in homes

Local I-Team

MEMPHIS, Tenn. ( – The City of Memphis recently received a $5 million grant to remove lead from around 300 homes. That sounds like a lot until you consider there are almost 200,000 homes built in Shelby County before 1978, which is the year lead in paint was banned.

Environmental experts say being exposed to lead in paint can be toxic, especially to children. 

“Lead poisoning in Memphis is about twice the national average,” says toxicologist Evan Comeaux.

Comeaux is with the Memphis and Shelby County Lead Safe Collaborative, a non-profit group dedicated to educating the public about the dangers of lead poisoning. Comeaux says when lead levels are elevated in a person’s blood, the toxic metal can cause everything from a lowered IQ to physical problems, such as going blind.

“Lead poisoning is related to a lot of the problems Memphis faces, including public health and education – childhood performance in schools and failing schools – and job rate job success,” says Comeaux.

In 2018, 13,000 children under the age of six were tested in Shelby County for lead in their blood. 228 children had elevated levels and 54 were considered significantly high.

The good news? There are fewer children found with lead in their system today than a decade ago. In 2018, fewer than 2% had elevated levels of lead, compared to more than 8% in 2009.  Experts attribute the decline to testing and public education.

For example: one easy way to spot there could be a problem?

“If you see paint chipping and degrading, that’s a red flag,” says Comeaux.

Shelby County and the City of Memphis have programs to help remove lead from homes. To qualify for the programs, you have to be considered low income and have children under the age of six.

There is a shortage of city-approved contractors who are certified to remove lead. It’s estimated there are fewer than 10 certified lead paint removal contractors who do residential work in Shelby County.

“Around the country it’s a challenge. There is a shortage of people that have these certifications,” says Mairi Albertson with the City of Memphis.

The city’s new lead removal grant also covers the expense of training additional contractors.

“We expect to help to increase contractor capacity by allowing people – who are low income residents of the city of Memphis – we will pay for the training and so if some of our contractors can hire, that increases our capacity to produce,” says Albertson.

“We do need more people to be trained and that’s a sad reality we face – is that a lot of people doing this repair work aren’t properly trained, and the lead paint is not removed properly and people can get exposed,” says Comeaux.

Comeaux says improper removal could make the situation worse, which could put you and your family’s health at risk.

“The lead paint should be removed professionally and properly, because if you remove it improperly, you can just spread it all over your house,” says Comeaux.

To see if you qualify for the city program, call 901-636-LEAD. You can also go to a hardware store or get a lead testing kit online if you want to check the status of your home.

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